A Mini-Neptune in the Habitable Zone in a Binary Star System

Sometimes, it seems like habitable worlds can pop up almost anywhere in the universe. A recent paper from a team of citizen scientists led by researchers at the Flatiron Institute might have found an excellent candidate to look for one – on a moon orbiting a mini-Neptune orbiting a star that is also orbited by another star.

That’s a lot of things orbiting each other, so let’s dive into some details of the star system known as TOI 4633. It has two potential planets. One has a relatively short 34-day orbit but whose existence was only found by radial velocity measurements, as it doesn’t cross between the Earth and its host star. It also has yet to be confirmed by exoplanet hunters.

Another planet, known for now at TOI 4633c, is much more intriguing. It falls into the size category of a “mini-Neptune,” meaning it is slightly smaller than the 8th planet in our solar system but is likely still a gas giant with a thick atmosphere. It orbits its host star once every 272 days – making it one of the 40 longest-orbiting planets out of the thousands discovered so far.

Binaries are just one of a class of multiple-star systems, as Fraser explains.

That long orbit also puts it in the habitable zone of its host star – about .85 AU away from the G-type star it is orbiting. Being in the habitable zone would imply that liquid water could exist on its surface. However, the size of the planet and the likely density of its atmosphere would rule out the possibility of surface water on the planet itself.

However, there is a relatively good chance that TOI 4633c could have a moon. Planets with longer orbits tend to accrue them (hence why Venus and Mercury don’t have any in our own solar system). Such a small world wouldn’t have the same restrictive constraints as its gas-giant host planet, meaning it could potentially be habitable, such as the moons Pandora in the Avatar franchise or Endor in Star Wars.

But what makes this system even more unique is that the star TOI 4633c is orbiting is itself being orbited by another star. It wasn’t long ago that we weren’t even sure if planets could exist in these “binary” systems, and how strange life might be on one has become prominent recently with the popularity of The Three-Body Problem. But in theory, binary systems have habitable zones, and planets can survive in a stable orbit around at least one of the stars.

TESS’ primary mission is compete, but its data is still a treasure trove of new discoveries, as Fraser covers.

The smaller star orbits around its larger binary companion only once every 230 years and gets close enough to the other star to be considered relatively close by interstellar standards. As of now, it’s unclear what, if any, effect this proximity to another star would have on TOI 4633c, but it’s doubtful that it would be a world like Tatooine. 

However, the system lacks similarities to famous fictional examples, and it makes up for its potential to solve some long-standing problems in planetary formation theory. In addition to searching for a potential exomoon around TOI 4633c, scientists will continue to monitor the system closely to see if it remains stable. They can also see how the current known (and theorized) planets fit into existing models of planetary system formation.

This is another feather in the cap of the Planet Hunters TESS citizen science collaboration. There are undoubtedly more strange star systems out there for them to find. If you’re interested in helping them, you can sign up here.

Learn More:
NASA – Discovery Alert: Mini-Neptune in Double Star System is a Planetary Puzzle
Eisner et al. – Planet Hunters TESS. V. A Planetary System Around a Binary Star, Including a Mini-Neptune in the Habitable Zone
UT – Marvel at the Variety of Planets Found by TESS Already
UT – A New Venus-Sized World Found in the Habitable Zone of its Star

Lead Image:
Artist’s depiction of the binary system TOI 4633 and its potentially habitable planet.
Credit – Ed Bell for Simons Foundation